Sunday, January 14, 2018

Wind River (Part I) (2017)

January 21, 2017 (Sundance Film Festival), August 4, 2017 (United States), release dates
Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan
Music by Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Edited by Gary D. Roach
Cinematography by Ben Richardson

Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert
Julia Jones as Wilma Lambert
Teo Briones as Casey Lambert
Graham Greene as Ben Shoyo
Elizabeth Olsen as Jane Banner
Gil Birmingham as Martin Hanson, Natalie’s father
Kelsey Chow as Natalie Hanson
Jon Bernthal as Matt Rayburn
Martin Sensmeier as Chip Hanson, Natalie’s brother
Tyler Laracca as Frank Walker
Gerald Tokala Clifford as Sam Littlefeather
James Jordan as Pete Mickens
Eric Lange as Dr. Whitehurst
Ian Bohen as Evan, deputy officer
Hugh Dillon as Curtis
Matthew Del Negro as Dillon
Tantoo Cardinal as Alice Crowheart, Wilma’s mother
Apesanahkwat as Dan Crowheart, Wilma’s father
Althea Sam as Annie Hanson, Natalie’s mother

Distributed by Acacia Entertainment
Produced by Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, Savvy Media Holding, Thunder Road Pictures, Film 44

Wind River opens with the words INSPIRED BY ACTUAL EVENTS, which fade away to a black screen, and then viewers hear a woman’ voice-over reciting two and a half stanzas of a poem:
There’s a meadow in my perfect world
where wind dances the branches of a tree
casting leopard spots of light across the face of a pond.
The tree stands tall and grand and alone,
shading the world beneath it.

. . . It is here, in the cradle of all I hold dear,
I guard every memory of you.

And when I find myself frozen in the mind of the real—
far from your loving eyes, I will return to this place,
close mine, and take solace in the simple perfection
of knowing you.
Before reaching the end of the last line of the first stanza, the black screen lightens to show a woman sobbing and running across a snow-covered field. She stumbles and falls, and the last shot of the sequence is one from a distance: She continues running and crying.

My post title mentions that this post is Part I, and that’s because I intend to devote a second post to the poem and to the writing in Wind River. This post focuses more on the noir details of Wind River: grief, vengeance, murder, fate, violence, betrayal. Viewers learn that Emily Lambert, the daughter of one of the main characters, is the author of the poem, but I’m guessing that means Taylor Sheridan, the writer and director of the film, or someone he knows is the author.

Cory Lambert, a Fish and Wildlife Service agent, finds the woman’s dead body frozen in the snowy wilderness of the Wind River reservation. Because murder is suspected, and because it was committed on federal and tribal land, an FBI agent, Jane Banner, is called in to help the investigation. The film follows their joint investigation into the circumstances behind the young woman’s death.

(This blog post about Wind River contains spoilers.)

Cory Lambert leads FBI agent Jane Banner to the location where he found the woman’s body. Here is part of their conversation, in which Cory describes how the woman died:
Cory Lambert: “Now it gets 20 below here at night so if you fill your lungs up with that cold air when you’re running, you could freeze ’em up. Your lungs fill up with blood, you start coughing it up. So wherever she came from, . . . she ran all the way here. Her lungs burst here. And she curled up in that tree line and drowned in her own blood.”
Jane Banner: “Well, how far do you think someone could run barefoot out here?”
Cory Lambert: “Oh, I don’t know, I . . . . How do you gauge someone’s will to live? Especially in these conditions. But I knew that girl. She’s a fighter. So no matter how far you think she ran, I can guarantee you she ran further. . . .”
This conversation near the start of the film helps to introduce many details about the plot, and it also demonstrates the power of the landscape for this particular story. The landscape, the snow, and the cold are important details: They are powerful forces that can destroy, but they also provide guidance in the form of clues to help solve the mystery.

Everything about this film—the landscape, the weather, the soundtrack—contributes to the grief felt by the characters and to the sense of alienation. Most of Wind River takes place outside, in the grand landscape of the West, but the grandeur accentuates the alienation and loneliness of several of the main characters. The many shots of the expansive wilderness in winter make the humans seem small and inconsequential in comparison, even though their stories are full of heartbreak. The music on the soundtrack is especially effective in Wind River. It adds to the mood of tension and mystery, and it sometimes includes lines from the poem I mentioned at the beginning of the post. Muted color is used throughout the film, and it also accentuates the somber story.

There is only one flashback, but the way it is used and its placement late in the film make it very unsettling. The point where the flashback is inserted heightens its intended effect because viewers are not prepared for it. They are not expecting a flashback precisely because none have been used so far. The content of the entire flashback sequence shows the events immediately preceding Natalie’s run across the snow-covered field, and they are marred by violence and tragedy.

Fate certainly plays a large role for the female victims of the film. It plunks them into situations they never asked for and emphatically don’t want. The people who love them are set on a trajectory trying to cope with their respective losses as best they can. The threat of violence becomes more pronounced as the movie progresses, and the flashback showing the violent events preceding Natalie’s death is thus incredibly dramatic because of its content and because of its placement.

The film is about justice and vengeance. The boundaries between “good” characters and “evil” characters seem clear, but several characters on all sides are looking for justice in the form of vengeance, and vengeance is a central theme.

Wind River has been called a neo-Western (Wikipedia is one example), and I will not quibble with categorizing it as such. But I would also put the film in the category of neo-noir. As I have written in this blog before, I’m happy putting any film into more than one category. No matter what category you choose for Wind River, it is a powerful film, not easy at all on viewers. In fact, the violence against women that is presented so powerfully in one particular sequence, in the flashback, might upset survivors of assault.

But viewers can skip through the flashback and still understand the powerful message of Wind River. It’s worth seeing. There’s not a whole lot of dialogue in many sequences, and the visuals are full of clues about the characters’ travails and about Natalie’s death at the start of the film. In fact, Wind River is worth seeing more than once because of its complexity and the joy of seeing more and more details with each viewing.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Informer (1935)

May 9, 1935, release date
Directed by John Ford
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols
Based on the novel The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty
Music by Max Steiner
Edited by George Hively
Cinematography by Joseph H. August

Victor McLaglen as “Gypo” Nolan
Heather Angel as Mary McPhillip
Preston Foster as Dan Gallagher
Margot Grahame as Katie Madden
Wallace Ford as Frankie McPhillip
Una O’Connor as Mrs. McPhillip
J. M. Kerrigan as Terry
Joe Sawyer as Bartley Mulholland (credited as Joseph Sauers)
Neil Fitzgerald as Tommy Connor
Donald Meek as Peter Mulligan
D’Arcy Corrigan as the blind man
Leo McCabe as Donahue
Steve Pendleton as Dennis Daly (credited as Gaylord Pendleton)
Francis Ford as “Judge” Flynn
May Boley as Madame Betty

Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures

I call The Informer an example of avant noir, what most people call proto-noir. It was released in 1935, five years before the beginning of the period most use to define film noir, which is approximately 1940 to 1960 or so. The Informer is one of those films that helps explain why a precise definition of film noir is so hard to pin down: It fits easily into the category of film noir, regardless of its release date.

So many film noir characteristics are included in The Informer: angst, torment, alienation, loneliness (in fact these are the main themes of the film), the role of fate, chiaroscuro lighting, violence, betrayal, German expressionism. Director John Ford was influenced by German expressionism according to the featurette included with the DVD, and the influence is easy to see in The Informer. The use of light and shadow and dark foggy sets to re-create the city of Dublin emphasizes Gypo’s loneliness and isolation throughout. The fog hems in all the characters in all the outdoor scenes. The effect is to emphasize Gypo’s decision at the start of the film that ripples out to touch most of the characters.

The Informer opens with foreboding music and shadowy silhouettes behind the opening credits. The images imply biblical references, especially the crucifixion: One silhouette, presumably the main character, Gypo Nolan, is seen facing his accusers with arms outstretched. After the credits, the film cuts to a title card: “A certain night in strife-torn Dublin—1922.” Gypo Nolan once worked for what the film refers to as “the organization,” which is a stand-in for the Irish Republican Amy (IRA). Then the biblical references become more obvious because of the cut to the next title card: “Then Judas repented himself—and cast down the thirty pieces of silver—and departed.”

(This blog post about The Informer contains spoilers.)

Gypo Nolan, walking at night on city streets shrouded in fog, sees a poster advertising a £20 reward for the capture of his friend Frankie McPhillip. He tears the poster down, but when he learns that his girlfriend Katie has to turn to prostitution to support herself, Gypo has found his motivation for informing and collecting the reward money. If Gypo and Katie could earn £20, they would have enough money to pay for passage to America for the two of them. All Gypo’s subsequent actions, painful to watch, can be attributed to his desire to help Katie, his remorse, and his desire to forget.

Gypo has been court-martialed, so to speak, from the organization because he couldn’t bring himself to kill “the Tan that killed Quincannon.” The organization members drew lots for the killing, and Gypo got the short match, but he couldn’t bear to hear the man beg for his life and thus let him go. When he reported this turn of events to his leader, Dan Gallagher, he was kicked out of the organization. Gypo is now penniless, jobless, and descending quickly into abject poverty. He cannot help himself, let alone help his girlfriend Katie.

Click here for more information about the Black and Tans, or the Tans, in Ireland. Click here for more information about the film itself.

The narrator of the featurette “The Informer: Out of the Fog” on the DVD says that the screenwriter Dudley Nichols humanized the characters from Liam O’Flaherty’s story and turned it into an expressionistic journey with little dialogue. This same narrator describes Gypo Nolan as a “cowardly despicable brute and a boozing liar.” This observation is essentially true, but it ignores the reasons behind Gypo’s actions. Despicable is not the word that I would use to describe Gypo. John Ford has asked viewers to spend an entire night with him, and it’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for Gypo’s plight. Gypo is desperate, however, because he himself is out of a job and has nothing to eat, no place to stay, no change of clothes (he says as much in the film). Gypo is also upset that his girlfriend Katie has to turn to prostitution to support herself. This particular event, which occurs near the start of the film, seems to be the breaking point for Gypo and becomes his motivation for informing and collecting the reward money.

The film starts with biblical references and it ends in a church. Gypo is mortally wounded and stumbles into the church to find Frankie McPhillip’s mother praying for her son’s soul. The conversation between them is especially poignant, and I think this scene provides additional evidence that Gypo is a character to be pitied. Gypo’s story is all too human, a reminder that anyone is a few steps from desperation, and desperation is what noir is all about.

I saw Odd Man Out (1947) about a month ago, and it is a good companion piece to The Informer. In fact, I believe I discovered The Informer thanks to a featurette on the DVD for Odd Man Out. Both films are about a central character involved in the organization, or the Irish Republican Army, and the price both pay for their involvement. I haven’t written about Odd Man Out yet; I’ll have to see it again.